What does the Recording Academy value more: commercial appeal or creativity?
After Sunday’s Grammy Awards received backlash for its lack of female nominees, Recording Academy President Neil Portnow made a controversial but well-meaning statement about women, creativity and the industry.
“It has to begin with…women who have the creativity in their hearts and souls, who want to be musicians, who want to be engineers, producers and want to be part of the industry on the executive level…[They need] to step up because I think they would be welcome,” Portnow said.
“I don’t have personal experience of those kinds of brick walls that you face, but I think it’s upon us—us as an industry—to make the welcome mat very obvious, breeding opportunities for all people who want to be creative and paying it forward and creating that next generation of artists.”
Grammy awards are widely considered as one of the highest honors in the music industry—but that view is at risk of narrowing soon. Grammys are said to be awarded based on quality and originality, but in recent years we’ve seen the Academy doling out little golden gramophones to the artists based on their commercial appeal, rather than creativity or innovation.
Last year we saw this when Adele beat out Beyoncé in both “Song of the Year” and “Album of the Year.” Adele’s commercial appeal is through the roof––she’s charming, quirky and undeniably talented, and her soulful love ballads are always instant classics.
On the other hand, many weren’t sure what to think about Beyoncé’s “Lemonade,” which was in turn angry, desperate, vulnerable, broken and raw. Her newest album was a departure from the confident, fierce Beyoncé who sang “I woke up like this.”
Others knew that Beyoncé’s “Lemonade” was special—especially Adele. The English singer even used both of her award speeches to thank Beyoncé for her authenticity.
“This album to me, the Lemonade album, was just so monumental…so well thought out, and so beautiful and soul-baring, and we all got to see another side to you that you don’t always let us see. And we appreciate that, and all us artists here…adore you.” Adele said in her acceptance speech.
Adele’s fellow Song of the Year award winners from the past few years have been artists like Bruno Mars and Ed Sheeran.
Mars swept up most of the major awards that night with his song “24k Magic,” and the album of the same name. It’s a bop for sure, and carefully follows the format for chart-topping songs. Therein lies the issue, however.
Don’t get me wrong, I like Bruno Mars and Ed Sheeran as much as the next person. Who wouldn’t? All of my favorite memories seem to be permeated with their songs. “Uptown Funk” was the finale song at every dance I attended in high school. I’ve slow-danced to “Thinking Out Loud” more times than I care to count. The radio always seems to be playing “Castle on the Hill” during every midnight drive.
Throughout their respective careers, both Mars and Sheeran have perfected the formula to create chart-topping pop music. They started their careers using their everyday, nice-guy charm to reel us in with feel-good hits like “Just the Way You Are” and “Thinking Out Loud.” Mars found his niche with ‘80s and ‘90s R&B-inspired dance anthems, and Sheeran continues to crank out one acoustic pop ballad after another. While each artist occasionally flirts with different styles, Mars with funk and soul, Sheeran with Celtic folk and hip-hop, at the end of the day, they revert to writing the songs that provide their bread and butter.
And those artists themselves provide the bread and butter of the Recording Academy. The Grammys are a peer-reviewed award show, receiving over 20,000 submissions a year. A panel of about 150 review the submissions to make sure they’re eligible, and then the nominees get sent out to the ballots for the first round of voting. Voting members can only vote in their own areas of expertise, so recording artists of all genres can vote for other recording artists in up to 20 genres. In addition, everyone can vote in the four general categories for Best New Artist, Record, Song and Album of the Year.
In a 2014 article for “Complex,” Rob Kenner wrote about what it’s like to be a voting member of the Academy.
“[I learned that you have to] be careful about green-lighting an album by someone who was really famous if you don’t want to see that album win a Grammy. Because famous people tend to get more votes from clueless Academy members, regardless of the quality of their work,” Kenner wrote. “Bottom line: the vast majority of the nominations are chosen by people who have little real expertise in a given field. I refrained from voting in heavy metal and classical because I know very little about those genres. But I could have if I wanted to, and that strikes me as a problem.”
Despite the flawed system, the Recording Academy announced that they will be taking steps to investigate the biases and barriers that impede female advancement in the music industry.
“We must actively work to eliminate these barriers and encourage women to live their dreams and express their passion and creativity through music,” Portnow said. “We must welcome, mentor and empower them. Our community will be richer for it.”